Of all the varieties of English routinely criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.
Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.
Steven Poole has had enough of the “spirit-sapping indignities” of key learnings, synergistic deliverables, and thought leaders who open their kimonos. Well aware that words are weapons, he is fighting back with what he considers the best arsenal at our disposal: scorn. (On this point I’m inclined to agree, having lampooned office jargon for a competition at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.)
Poole’s new book, Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, comprises short, entertaining dissections of office terminology. From the banal (mission, impact) to the ludicrous (boil the ocean, big hairy audacious goal), it runs the gamut of management mumbo-jumbo, metaphor, euphemism, cliché, and assorted BS – language “engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations”.
Poole has a talent for nailing ideas in a few choice words. If you miss the days when people spoke about things instead of around them, you’ll appreciate his withering assessment of this “peculiarly passive-aggressive” construction. Circle back is another “avoidance strategy”, while risk management is “a magical way of pretending you know how to avoid future disaster”. Speaking of magical thinking:
No one just looks at things any more, inside or outside the office. Instead, one must consider ‘how the optics will resonate’. In 1704 Isaac Newton published his work Opticks: or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. The modern business use of optics trades on the term’s heritage in physics to pretend there is some kind of reliable, scientific method to guessing what other people will think about something.
Many of these expressions, like optics, are old, some surprisingly so. Who’d have guessed Ralph Waldo Emerson was described as a thought leader in 1872? OED at hand, Poole traces the origins of contemporary work jargon in ways that illuminate their newer senses. Those of us who chase weekly deadlines, for instance, can be grateful they’re not the lines drawn around a military prison beyond which escapees may be shot.
Military motifs recur in management speak, as do astronautical and other exciting fields of human activity, the better to make mundane office activity feel more adventurous. The implicit motivation is of course to confer “action man glamour” on desk-scratching behaviour by importing metaphorical uses of words like radar, weaponizing, and strategy – a word whose adoption by universities indicates “widespread despair among dons”.
Taboo bodily functions are also commonly connoted by business jargon. I’m sure there’s a basic mammalian reason for this; in any case it gives Poole the opportunity for some amusing rude jokes. Less amusing is the superstitious avoidance of split infinitives, resulting in the affected-sounding “It is difficult wholly to despise”, “Why are you trying . . . actually to insert”, etc. Maybe that was an editor’s call; its hyperformality sits awkwardly with Poole’s breezily sharp style, which accommodates internet initialisms like OMG and deliberate disfluencies like er and um as a rhetorical device.
In his Dictionary of Weasel Words, Don Watson talks about our leaders and institutions “mugging” us with empty and evasive language. Poole’s treasury neatly sidesteps this assault and offers short but cathartic counterattacks. I liked it most when it replaced gentle mockery with rousing contempt, such as his skewering of that “enforced hallucination” the office team, or his exposé of quality as a smokescreen exploited by corporations in the act of firing people.
Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? would make a welcome Xmas stocking filler (or a gift to oneself, if you want to cascade some adjacent imagineerings). It’s available from the Guardian Bookshop, Book Depository, or your preferred store, and there’s an extract here if you’d like to sample it first.
Disclosure: Poole and his publisher Sceptre sent me a copy of this book for review.